Prediction: Fallout of Sandy Hook Shooting Will Affect Mental Health Policies More than Gun Control


The political response to Friday's horrible shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut has focused first and foremost on issues related to gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and gun control. As Jacob Sullum noted earlier today, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama have called for "meaningful action" when it comes to stopping other mass slaughters. Yet neither seems capable of outlining exactly what steps regarding gun violence should be taken or precisely how they will be effective in stopping events that are thankfully as rare as they are awful. From banning certain types of guns arbitrarily designated as "assault weapons" to limiting high-capacity magazines to insisting on better or more complete federal background checks, it's not clear how such measures would stop or minimize mass shooters. 

On top of that, you can layer a generally positive feeling toward guns and gun rights in the country, recent Supreme Court rulings that substantiate a wider reading of the Second Amendment, and decades-long trend toward liberalization of gun laws around the country. All this adds up to a political reality that will almost certainly minimize any sort of gun-control legislation, no matter how much its proponents push in that direction.

Because of that, I suspect that the real fallout from the Sandy Hook shooting will be in areas related to mental health, especially in terms of increasing funding for various programs to identify and treat people suspected of having issues. The highest-profile mass shootings in recent memory—think of the Aurora, Colorado shooting from the summer, Jared Lee Loughner's 2011 rampage in Arizona, and the Virginia Tech spree by Seung-Hui Cho—all involved people who not only were clearly unbalanced but who had "slipped through the cracks" of the mental health system in one way or another. The Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, also fits this bill, which is simultaneously comforting (these people are nuts) and terrifying (and they walked among us).

Particularly after Loughner's mass shooting, there were many calls for strengthening policies that would allow for easier involuntary commitment of people suspected of potential violence. As the prominent psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "These tragedies are the inevitable outcome of five decades of failed mental-health policies." He continued:

The solution to this situation is obvious—make sure individuals with serious mental illnesses are receiving treatment. The mistake was not in emptying the nation's hospitals but rather in ignoring the treatment needs of the patients being released. Many such patients will take medication voluntarily if it is made available to them. Others are unaware they are sick and should be required by law to receive assisted outpatient treatment, including medication and counseling, as is the case in New York under Kendra's Law. If they do not comply with the court-ordered treatment plan, they can and should be involuntarily admitted to a hospital.

Fuller's basic reaction was widely shared across the political spectrum. Expect it to be revived in a big way in the wake of Lanza's shooting. In Time, Texas A&M's Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology and criminal justice writes,

Our country's funding for mental-health services has only gotten worse since the 2008 recession. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been warning for some time, the existing level of funding is inadequate, so our nation's ability to identify and care for the severely mentally ill has been hamstrung.

I think it's far more likely that this sort of argument will find a far warmer reception among legislators and the general public. There's no National Rifle Association pushing back against increasing funding for any and all sorts of interventions into mental health (however broadly that term will be defined). As important, members of Congress will be able to use increased spending on these issues as a way of sending money home to their districts, where parents increasingly define any and all personality tics in their kids as something to be wary of. Only oddball civil libertarians will worry about easing the ability to involuntarily commit people and/or track self-evidently odd people in the classroom and workplace. School officials already have a counseling framework in place that wil readily absorb more staff and money. Mental health and other counseling services will piggyback easily onto the build out of Obamacare.

While I doubt any of that activity will make us safer from mass shootings—such events are so rare it seems highly unlikely that stopping them completely can be accomplished—it will allay many people's understandable fears and anxieties. And a few years down the road, when mass shootings haven't increased (because they haven't been increasing), this sort of action will be given the credit for avoiding another Sandy Hook School shooting.